Senate Republicans Clear the Nuclear Option

Trump Maladministration

Two big news items already this morning. One, “House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) will temporarily step aside from an investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, including interactions between Moscow and the Trump campaign,” Politico says.

But don’t get excited: “The Intelligence Committee’s Russia investigation will be taken over by Reps. Michael Conaway (R-Texas), Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) and Tom Rooney (R-Fla.).” Meh.

The other items is that the Democrats blocked Judge Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation to the Supreme Court from advancing in the Senate under the old rules. Senate Republicans have already voted to pull the plug on Senate filibuster rules so that Gorsuch can be confirmed with a simple majority vote.

Gorsuch is expected to be confirmed tomorrow with 52 Republican votes, plus the votes of three Democrats — Joe Manchin (WV), Heidi Heitkamp (ND), and Joe Donnelly (IN). Remember those names. I believe all three of them are up for re-election in 2018.

There is considerable hand-wringing going on about how awful it is that Democrats are doing this awful thing. The more I hear about Gorsuch, however, the more I think he will be a disaster. There’s no point waiting for a worse crisis to blow up the Senate; he’s bad enough.

At the NY Times, Steven Waldman makes a good argument that we might all be better off without the filibuster, or at least what the filibuster has become.

In truth, eliminating the filibuster would be a minor change compared with the problem that such a move would solve: the recent rise of a system based on supermajority rule rather than majority rule.

Of course, the modern filibuster doesn’t require senators to give speeches through the night. It’s all very abstract; in the case of nonspending bills, the minority party simply lets it be known that it has enough votes to block the legislation.

In effect, the minority party now gets to decide when a bill should require 60 votes instead of 51.

The switch to supermajority rule happened without a constitutional amendment, without a national debate, without its even becoming a major issue in a presidential campaign. Because it happened gradually, we didn’t fully appreciate: The 788 filibusters since 2007 — those were the “nuclear” moments. …

… Under the filibuster rules in place at the time of the New Deal, Republicans could have blocked the Security Exchange Act, the National Labor Relations Act and the Tennessee Valley Authority, according to the journalist Charles Peters’s new book, “We Do Our Part.”

And if the Senate had been operating under majority rule during the Obama and Bush administrations, the following bills would have gained Senate approval: the Toomey-Manchin background check bill for guns; the provision allowing people to have a “public option” for health care on the Obamacare exchanges; comprehensive immigration reform; an increase in the minimum wage; and the bipartisan campaign finance bill, called the Disclose Act.

The Democrats, Waldman argues, have been entirely too nice. They should have ended the filibuster years ago, when they had the chance.

To clarify, Republicans today only killed the filibuster as it relates to Supreme Court nominees. But Waldman argues that the whole thing should be done away with. And let the chips fall.

I’m sure there are good arguments for the other side, but “keep your powder dry” isn’t one of them. At Vox, Dylan Matthews argues that maybe Democrats should allow Gorsuch to be approved so that they might be able to stop the next right-wing judge from being appointed. But I don’t see the sense of that. Republicans would just pull the trigger on the filibuster next time. What’s the point?

Our only real hope of the complete takeover of SCOTUS is to hope the Dems take back the Senate in 2018 and that no other justice dies or resigns before then. Otherwise, it doesn’t matter what the Dems do now. Republicans will ram through their judges any way they can.

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First Ailes, Now O’Reilly? Maybe.

News Media

In his most recent column, Michael Gerson slams Fox News.

If the accusations of dozens of women over two decades are correct — and it is hard to dismiss the women, as the accused have done, as unbalanced, dishonest or disgruntled — then Fox News is the focus of hypocrisy in the modern world. While preaching traditional values, it has operated, according to former Fox anchor Andrea Tantaros, “like a sex-fueled, Playboy Mansion-like cult, steeped in intimidation, indecency and misogyny.”

A recent New York Times story detailing $13 million in payouts to women accusing O’Reilly of harassment depicts a corporate atmosphere of predation and enablement. Stories on Ailes present a similar (and even worse) picture of women treated as sex objects and employment benefits.

Gerson’s column could almost have been written by a leftie feminist, except for one slightly paternalistic line, “Can a news organization deal adequately with women’s issues when you would never allow your own daughter to work there?” But I forgive Gerson, because he recognizes the essential problem.

The ethos of a newspaper, cable network or website influences the final product. At The Post — reflecting its investigative self-image — the new motto is “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” At Fox, this ethos has involved, according to the New Yorker’s Margaret Talbot, “the fetishization of hot female news presenters.” And this, it seems, has doubled as a kind of conveyor belt for bright new faces. Can it really be a coincidence that feminism is often dismissed on Fox News as so much political correctness?

Of course it’s not a coincidence. Nor is it a coincidence that more than 30 advertisers recently withdrew their advertising dollars from O’Reilly’s show.

Erik Wemple of WaPo points out that O’Reilly is known for dismissing his detractors with insightful insults, such as “pinhead” and “far-left loon,” but he’s been mostly silent lately. Now that Ailes is out, will Fox News continue to shell out millions of dollars to keep its big star online?

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Bannon Out at NSC

Trump Maladministration

The big news this morning is that Steve Bannon has been removed from the National Security Council.

An 4 April presidential memorandum took Bannon, the former Breitbart News executive and chief White House link to the nationalist rightwing, off the US’s main body for foreign policy and national security decision-making. It also restores the traditional roles of the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and the director of national intelligence onto the NSC.

While the revamp is likely to be seen as a victory for Trump’s second national security adviser, army lieutenant general HR McMaster, the substantive impact of the shakeup remains to be seen. A parallel security structure in the Eisenhower executive office building, known as the Strategic Initiatives Group, reports to Bannon, whose closeness to Trump is a signal-marker of influence in this administration.

As much as I’d like to think that maybe Bannon’s influence in the White House is on the wane — if that even matters — it may be too soon to assume that.

There’s also this:

A White House official said that Bannon was placed on the committee in part to monitor Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and never attended a meeting. He’s no longer needed with McMaster in charge of the council, the official said.

Sounds like a Trumped-up excuse to me. Flynn was fired on February 13. This excuse also suggests that Trump was suspicious of Flynn even as he appointed him, which I doubt.

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Obey the Disobedience!

big picture stuff

MIT is now accepting nominations for the first-ever MIT Media Lab Disobedience Award, which carries a $250,000 cash prize, no strings attached. The award will go to somebody engaged in an “extraordinary example of disobedience for the benefit of society.” So who better to nominate than Our Doug? I nominated him already, in fact, but maybe more nominations would help.

Here’s the MIT Media Lab Disobedience Award page. And here is Doug’s Wikipedia page if you need to refresh your memory.

Doug, let us know in the comments what contact information for you people might use.

Update: Here is the nomination form.


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Trump Maladministration

This morning Senate Dems announced they had enough votes to filibuster the Gorsuch nomination. It’s assumed Republicans will go nuclear and change Senate rules to allow Gorsuch to be confirmed with a simple majority. And, of course, they will blame Democrats for forcing them to do that.

Sarah Posner:

But, putting aside the fact that Republicans didn’t even give Merrick Garland a hearing for months, Democrats are standing on the moral high ground on the merits. That’s because, at his confirmation hearings, Gorsuch steadily evaded questions designed to pin down his legal views, denying voters any insight into those views. This gives Dems both a defense against the “obstructionist” charge and gives them the better political argument.

Some have argued that Democrats should save their political capital for a future nominee. Gorsuch, this argument goes, won’t shift the balance of power on the court since his views essentially align with those of his predecessor, the late Antonin Scalia. Democrats, then, should hold their fire for a future Trump nominee to replace one of the liberal justices on the court, when the future of abortion rights, for example, hangs in the balance.

But Gorsuch has handed Democrats a robust case against his confirmation, and they should use it. First, there are his rulings. He ruled against a worker suing his employer in what’s now known as the frozen trucker case, siding with an employer who fired its driver Alphonse Maddin, for abandoning his incapacitated (and unheated) truck in subzero temperatures. Gorsuch also ruled for Hobby Lobby over its female employees, holding that a privately held corporation had a religious right to object to the contraception coverage requirement under the Affordable Care Act. In both, Gorsuch showed he’s inclined to interpret statutes as protective of companies with readings that most Democrats and liberal legal experts find highly questionable.

Do read the whole thing.

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The Planned Parenthood Video Scammers Deserve Prosecution

Trump Maladministration

Last week California prosecutors filed 15 felony charges against the two anti-abortion crusaders who released deceptively edited videos to claim that Planned Parenthood was engaged in illegal fetal tissue sales.

Two anti-abortion activists who filmed undercover videos of themselves trying to buy fetal tissue from Planned Parenthood have been charged with 15 felonies in California. Prosecutors say David Daleiden and Sandra Merritt of the Center for Medical Progress used fake identities and an invented bioresearch company to meet medical providers and record their private conversation without consent at several locations in the state.

Daleiden is a 28-year-old activist whose undercover videos have electrified the anti-abortion movement since he started releasing them in 2015. The first and most notorious video captured a Planned Parenthood medical director discussing the donation of fetal tissue with what some saw as callous informality—over wine and salad, as abortion opponents like to emphasize. The employee thought she was having a conversation with two representatives of a tissue-procurement company. Within months of the video’s release, the Washington Post called Daleiden “the biggest star in the anti-abortion firmament.” …

…Daleiden and Merritt were indicted on similar charges in Texas last year, but those charges were dropped after six months. Meanwhile, investigators in California were moving forward with their case, searching Daleiden’s apartment almost a year ago, and seizing a laptop and hard drives. “We will not tolerate the criminal recording of confidential conversations,” California attorney general Xavier Becerra said in a statement this week.

 The Los Angeles Times editorial board disagrees with these charges, calling it prosecutorial overreach:

It’s disturbingly aggressive for Becerra to apply this criminal statute to people who were trying to influence a contested issue of public policy, regardless of how sound or popular that policy may be. Planned Parenthood and biomedical company StemExpress, which was also featured in the videos, have another remedy for the harm that was done to them: They can sue Daleiden and Merritt for damages. The state doesn’t need to threaten the pair with prison time.

How much do I disagree with the LA Times? Let me count the ways …

First, it wasn’t just Planned Parenthood and StemExpress who were damaged. Taxpayers footed the bills for all the investigations that went forward because of this scam. This is from September 2016, while the tab was still running:

The investigations into Planned Parenthood’s practice of fetal tissue donation are running up quite a tab. Meanwhile, the man who prompted them has not received a single fine.

After anti-abortion activist and Center for Medical Progress founder David Daleiden alleged in a series of undercover videos last year that Planned Parenthood was selling donated fetal tissue for a profit, Republican-led investigations quickly followed and they have not been cheap.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee panel investigating Planned Parenthood is on track to spend at least $790,000, according to a recent report from Rewire. In addition to the previous congressional investigations into Planned Parenthood, a dozen states have also found room in their budgets for taxpayer-funded inquiries of their own. Texas alone has spent at least $47,000 on what the AustinChronicle has labeled a “witch hunt.”

Legal fees aside, Daleiden himself has only had to post a single $3,000 bond in Texas. …

… Twelve state investigations into Planned Parenthood have found no proof that the women’s health organization sold fetal tissue for a profit, as Daleiden has repeatedly alleged. As Vox reported, eight additional states have refused to open investigations, citing a lack of evidence, and previous congressional investigations into Planned Parenthood have not turned up proof of criminal wrongdoing.

Does the LA Times think those states plus the federal government will sue Daleiden and Merritt to recoup all the taxpayer dollars wasted on investigations because of his false charges? If so, now we’re talking. But I haven’t heard of any such plans.

It would be one thing if someone had legitimate evidence of criminal wrongdoing that triggered investigations, even if the accused entity were eventually exonerated. But when someone fabricates evidence to make a public accusation that triggers expensive investigations, that should not go unpublished. Maybe there’s no specific law against this, but there ought to be.

Second, violence and threats against Planned Parenthood clinics nearly doubled after the release of the doctored videos.

The scene outside women’s health clinics has become dramatically more threatening to patients and providers since 2015, when anti-abortion activists produced a series of heavily edited videos that purported to show Planned Parenthood workers negotiating the sale of fetal body parts. The videos have been thoroughly debunked, and Planned Parenthood has been cleared of wrongdoing in multiple investigations. But the percentage of clinics reporting violence and threats by anti-abortion activists nearly doubled after the videos were released, from 19.7 percent of clinics in the first half of 2014 to 34.2 percent in the first half of 2016.

The most common types of violence and intimidation that clinics have reported include stalking, bomb threats, death threats and people blocking access to clinics. In 2015, at one Colorado Planned Parenthood facility, a man broke in and shot 12 people, killing three. He cited the alleged sale of “baby parts” as his motivation. Nearly half of clinics (49.5 percent) reported at least one incident of severe violence or harassment in 2016, such as a break-in, robbery or instance of arson or vandalism. A quarter of all facilities said they experience harassment by anti-abortion protesters on a daily basis.

“This is just not tolerable behavior in a democracy,” said Ellie Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, a nonprofit. “This would never happen to men walking into a medical clinic.

The man who shot and killed three people in Colorado Springs, Robert Dear, told police he attacked the clinic because he was “upset with them performing abortions and the selling of baby parts.” Three people died as a result of the deceptive video.

In most sensible countries, using speech to incite violence — especially when the speech actually does incite violence — is what’s called a “crime.” After World War II several European nations passed “hate speech” laws to limit the kind of xenophobic, bigoted speech that gave rise of fascism and the Holocaust. It can be argued that in some nations this has been taken too far to curb legitimate speech.

But in the U.S., people can spread lies intended to defame and discredit anybody, even if that speech leads to violence, and nobody can prosecute them for it. The First Amendment protects all kinds of speech that sorta kinds advocates violence in a general way, and because Daleiden and Merritt  didn’t actually call on people to go out and bomb abortion clinics they can probably hide behind the First Amendment on this one.

But these people released a deceptive video to spread lies that not only lead to threats, but three people were shot and killed in Colorado Springs because of it.

I’ve written before that if any “activist” group tried the same crap against banks that they pull against abortion clinics, they’d be locked up last week. There’s be no question the perpetrators were terrorists and criminals. But violence against abortion clinics somehow falls into a grey area where terrorism can get away with calling itself “activism.”

In short, the false charges against Planned Parenthood promulgated by Daleiden and Merritt had serious, real-world consequences, including the murder of three people and hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars wasted, and these consequences didn’t fall exclusively on Planned Parenthood and StemExpress. Maybe the unlawful recording of private conversations is the only crime they can be charged with, but if they are convicted I will see it as justice. It’s like Al Capone being convicted of tax evasion — he was guilty of so much more, but better those charges than nothing.

And while we’re on the subject — last week the pathological misogynist and so-called vice president Mike Pence cast a tie-breaking vote in the Senate that received little notice:

Republican legislation letting states deny federal family planning money to Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers advanced toward Senate passage Thursday, rescued by an ailing GOP senator who returned to the Capitol after back surgery and a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence.

Republican leaders kept a procedural vote open for over an hour after two GOP senators, Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski and Maine’s Susan Collins, joined Democrats trying to block the measure. Pence then journeyed to the Capitol to break a 50-50 tie and cast the deciding vote in Congress’ latest clash that mixed abortion, women’s health and states’ rights.

I don’t believe this has been signed into law yet, but I don’t see what’s going to stop it.

The terrible irony, of course, is that Vice President Weenie (to be called such henceforth because of his pathological fear of women) has experience with de-funding Planned Parenthood. As governor of Indiana, his slashing of Planned Parenthood and other public health funds led directly to a public health crisis — a massive HIV outbreak. Apparently he’s learned nothing.

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Grifters in Paradise

Trump Maladministration

The New York Times writes of Jared and Ivanka Kushner:

…the financial disclosure report released late Friday for Mr. Kushner, which shows that he and his wife still benefit financially from a real estate and investment empire worth as much as $740 million, makes clear that this most powerful Washington couple is walking on perilous legal and ethical ground, according to several prominent experts on the subject.

Unlike Mr. Trump, who is exempt from conflict of interest laws, both Mr. Kushner and Ms. Trump — who took a formal White House position this past week — are forbidden under federal criminal and civil law to take any action that might benefit their particular financial holdings.

Jamie Gorelick, who served as deputy attorney general at the Justice Department during the Clinton administration and is now advising Mr. Kushner and Ms. Trump on government ethics issues, said that the couple could continue to hold on to so many of their assets because most of the value is tied up in buildings.

“The real estate assets that Kushner is holding on to are unlikely to pose the kinds of conflicts that would trigger the need to divest,” Ms. Gorelick, a partner at WilmerHale, the law firm, said in a statement on Friday. “The remaining conflicts, from a practical perspective, are pretty narrow and very manageable.”

But real estate projects like the Kushner Companies’ deals have become a magnet for opaque foreign money — often from parts of the world that present thorny policy questions, such as China, where Mr. Kushner’s company has actively sought investors, as well as the Middle East and Russia. As part of his exceptionally broad portfolio in the White House, Mr. Kushner has been a crucial figure in arranging the visit of the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, on Thursday in Florida.

Dahlia Lithwick reports other criticism of the Trunps:

This week, the grown-up is H. Scott Wallace, co-chair of the Wallace Global Fund, which promotes sustainable investments and until very recently, received legal counsel from the same firm that helped Donald Trump “separate” from his business interests before assuming the presidency. In a letter explaining his decision to fire that law firm, Morgan Lewis & Bockius, Wallace leaves no doubt that the “the ethical carnage” sanctioned by the firm’s lawyers is not tolerable, or normal, or even minimally defensible.

The letter—addressed to the firm’s chair Jami McKeon and first reported by Politico—expressly calls out the firm’s representation of Donald Trump and the legal advice given by Morgan Lewis partner Sherri Dillon. Dillon is the lawyer who stood next to piles of presumably empty manila folders and the president at a Jan. 11 press conference to defend Trump’s decision not to place his business in a blind trust, but instead to set up a trust managed by his sons, of which he still maintains full ownership, allowing him to profit from his presidency.

Wallace wrote that the firm “empowers and even encourages impeachable offenses and undetectable financial conflicts of interest by America’s highest official.”

The letter then catalogs in detail the myriad ways in which Trump’s continuing conflicts of interest and self-dealing violate the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause and characterizes Dillon’s solution as “an illusion of protection against the President using his office for personal gain.” It goes on to detail corruption-related developments since that January press conference, ranging from the granting of 38 trademarks to Trump by China, his D.C. hotels courting foreign business away from other venues, and the doubling of initiation fees at Mar-a-Lago.

You’ve got to admit, though, the Kushner/Trumps are pulling off the biggest grift in history. I’ll give them that.

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Trump Threatens Freedom Caucus, and Other News

Trump Maladministration

The so-called president intends to make good on his threat to “go after” Freedom Caucus members who thwarted him on the health care bill —

Trump’s threat to “fight them” in the 2018 elections was an extraordinary step. Trump had previously made electoral threats against wayward members of his party, but Thursday’s tweet was especially direct, threatening to treat them the same way as Democrats.

“The Freedom Caucus will hurt the entire Republican agenda if they don’t get on the team, & fast,” Trump tweeted. “We must fight them, & Dems, in 2018!” …

…Finding Trump supporters to challenge Republicans in a primary would be hard and could further thrust the GOP into civil war.

To which I say, boo. And hoo.

The New York Times has identified two White House officials who gave intelligence reports to the nearly toasted Devin Nunes, chair of the House Intelligence Committee.

Several current American officials identified the White House officials as Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the senior director for intelligence at the National Security Council, and Michael Ellis, a lawyer who works on national security issues at the White House Counsel’s Office and formerly worked on the staff of the House Intelligence Committee.

A White House spokesperson declined to comment.

Mr. Cohen-Watnick is a former Defense Intelligence Agency official who was originally brought to the White House by Michael T. Flynn, the former national security adviser. The officials said that earlier this month, shortly after Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter about being wiretapped on the orders of President Barack Obama, Mr. Cohen-Watnick began reviewing highly classified reports detailing the intercepted communications of foreign officials.

Officials said the reports consisted primarily of ambassadors and other foreign officials talking about how they were trying to develop contacts within Mr. Trump’s family and inner circle in advance of his inauguration.

The problem is that Nunes has denied his sources worked in the White House; see Aaron Blake at WaPo.

Elsewhere — Jared Kushner is Trump’s Guy who is charged with running government like a business. But according to a former employee, Kushner can’t run a business like a business.

Paul Waldman tells us that Mike Pence is terrified of women. He should be, and so should Sam Brownback.

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Trump Maladministration

The so-called president approval rating has fallen to 35 percent  in the Gallup daily tracking poll, equal to Lyndon Johnson in August 1968.

But LBJ had actually, you know, done stuff. The war in Vietnam seemed out of control, and his apparent lack of a plan for the war had pissed off both hawks and doves, and even Walter Cronkite. He’d been barred from attending the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The nation was reeling from various riots and assassinations. And so on. It was a rough time.

But with Trump, nothing has happened except for his own screwups. Trump dropped to 35 percent by being Trump.

Ronald Reagan also sank to 35 percent at the beginning of 1983, and obviously he recovered from that. At the beginning of 1983 people did not like the way Reagan was handling the economy. His big, splashy tax cuts — notably the “Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981” — hadn’t brought about the promised recovery. However, Gallup says,

His ratings moved back above 50% by November 1983 — not only because the economy was picking up, but also in part as a result of rally effects associated with the U.S. invasion of Grenada and the terrorist explosion that killed 241 American Marines in Beirut, Lebanon.

A sensible nation would have booted Reagan out of office for the invasion of Grenada and the slaughter of those Marines  — Ronald Reagan’s Benghazi. It’s possible we had already passed a point off no return into Crazy Land at that point.

But my point is that Trump appears to be sinking to a point of no return himself. He’s hit the lowest approval rating from which any POTUS has ever recovered. None have ever come back from 34 percent or lower. Note that Trump’s White House staff isn’t nearly as competent as Reagan’s, plus Donnie lacks Ronnie’s people skills.

Now for today’s oopsie: The geniuses in the Trump Brain Trust have realized that much of the border with Mexico is marked by a river. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke revealed that this poses a problem

“The border is complicated, as far as building a physical wall,” he said. “The Rio Grande, what side of the river are you going to put the wall? We’re not going to put it on our side and cede the river to Mexico. And we’re probably not going to put it in the middle of the river.”

— Wait, what? Does that mean they think they can build the wall on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande? Zinke didn’t specifically say that, this headline to the contrary. But if they don’t want to build it on the U.S. side, and they don’t want to build it down the middle of the bleeping river — where the hell else do they think they can put it?

Tune in soon for another episode of How Low Can He Go, or You Can’t Make This Shit Up.

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On the Road

Trump Maladministration

I am traveling and visiting family, which is why I have been scarce. I will be back in the groove tomorrow. Behave!

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